Session reaches the midpoint, no bills passed
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers reach the midpoint of their annual legislative session next week, with no bills yet reaching final passage, budget negotiations at a critical point and a series of proposals already on the trash heap.
Proposals to ban discrimination against gay state workers, enact term limits on statewide elected officials and put limits on the TOPS free college tuition program are dead for the session. So is Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tax plan.
Debate continues over expanding Louisiana’s Medicaid program, loosening gun control laws and giving college systems the ability to raise their own tuition rates.
Meanwhile, House lawmakers already are questioning if budget disputes will drag them into a special session if they can’t reach a compromise with the Senate and governor’s office on the spending plans before work must end June 6.
“If we come to an agreement on the House side, part of that agreement is going to be sticking together until the end,” said Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
No bills have made it to Jindal’s desk so far, with four weeks left. That’s not unusual by the midpoint of the short, two-month regular session.
The annual gathering started strangely, with the Republican governor giving up on his hard-fought, but unpopular tax rewrite proposal on opening day. Jindal acknowledged he lacked the support to get rid of Louisiana’s income taxes and replace them with higher and broader sales taxes on an array of new items.
He shelved that plan and asked lawmakers to phase out the income tax instead.
House members, both Republican and Democrat, jettisoned that idea a week later, saying they didn’t want to heap new budget problems on a state struggling with a more than $1 billion shortfall in the upcoming 2013-14 year, with years of budget gaps on the horizon.
Focus returned to the budget. Negotiations are ongoing in the House between conservative Republicans and Democrats over crafting a compromise that could gain support. The bipartisan coalition is considering a mix of cuts and new limits on some tax break programs as part of the agreement.
“I think we’re sending a strong message that we’re not just willing to accept what the governor’s office sends to us,” said Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, a leader of conservative GOP House members.
The approach is running into criticism from the Jindal administration because the governor opposes eliminating or shrinking tax breaks without cutting taxes elsewhere. The state’s leading business organization also came out against such proposals if the tax changes would cost businesses more.
“Businesses are already struggling to absorb recent and soon-to-be-implemented tax increases from the federal government. They will not look kindly on more coming from the state level,” Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry wrote in his weekly column.
Other measures are having a smooth ride through the Legislature so far, including proposals aimed at regulating salt dome operations after a 15-acre sinkhole displaced more than 300 people in Assumption Parish. Two bills have received backing in the House and aren’t expected to encounter trouble in the Senate.
The Senate has easily agreed to proposals that would prohibit doctors from remotely administering the abortion pill via video hookup.
— a process criticized as “telemedicine abortion” — and that would ban posts to Twitter and Facebook while driving.
A bid to give lawmakers more oversight of privatized health care programs created by the Jindal administration appears on track to passage after being vetoed twice before by the governor. Jindal, whose administration is under federal investigation for the award of a now-canceled Medicaid contract, said he doesn’t oppose the bill.
Higher education leaders are trying again to wrest control of their tuition rates from the Legislature. Such proposals face tough hurdles, needing a two-thirds vote from lawmakers.
Awaiting votes in the Senate after getting support in the House are measures that would loosen state restrictions on weapons.
The proposals would ban enforcement of any federal restrictions on owning semi-automatic weapons, make it a misdemeanor to publish the names and addresses of people who own concealed handgun permits and let people carry concealed weapons into restaurants that serve alcohol.
One of the larger battles involves the federal Affordable Care Act and whether to expand Louisiana’s Medicaid program to cover thousands of uninsured, with the federal government picking up most of the cost.
Jindal vehemently opposes the expansion, but the Senate will consider a proposal that would tap into the Medicaid expansion money to pay for private insurance coverage.
Gaining little traction are proposals to open more of the governor’s office records to the public and repeal a law that allows public school science teachers to use supplemental materials, which has been criticized as a way to teach creationism.